As we headed towards Florence from Venice – a mere two to three-hour railway journey – we came across some towns the names of which were very familiar. Padua, for example, was one which I had come across while studying in college. It has a very old university where astronomer Galileo used to be in the faculty. Then again there was another stop at Verona, the locale of Shakespeare’s as many as three plays, viz “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”, “Taming of The Shrew” and, of course, “Romeo and Juliet” – Juliet’s balcony continues to be of unending interest and is one of the top tourist attractions. Even otherwise the place boasts of numerous touristy sites which include a Roman amphitheatre. Another town the name of which was familiar was Bologna. Its fame is because it hosts the world’s oldest university. Besides, it has a well-conserved medieval city-centre. Alas, we could not get off the train and take a peep into these cities which would have enriched the memories of this trip of ours to Italy.
Florence is the capital of Tuscany in the central region of Italy which is known for its landscapes, history, legacy in arts and influence on high culture. It has hosted numerous figures who were influential in its history, art, literature and thought. From Petrarch to Dante to Machiavelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, - an engineer as well as an artist who produced the iconic portrait Mona Lisa – all enriched Tuscany. Many of Tuscany’s cities, including Florence have been designated as World Heritage Sites. Besides, it is wine country and notable as it is for producing some of the top-rated wines it has among its produce the well-known wine Chianti.
Florence (Firenze in Italian) has its history rooted in Roman times. Built in 80 BC as an army camp, later it became a centre of trade and banking and eventually becoming economically, politically and culturally one of the most important cities of Europe. What is most remarkable is that the language spoken in the city in the 14th Century was and is still considered as Italian language. Even in the prosaic financial sector its currency, the gold florin, financed industry, trade and even wars since middle ages. Besides, Florence was home to the powerful House of Medici whose members reigned as Grand Dukes of Tuscany. Two members of the family became popes and Lorenzo de Medici was considered a financial and cultural wizard.
Speaking of culture, Florence is believed to be the birthplace of European Renaissance – the name given to the great revival in social and cultural pursuits driven by the rediscovery of Greek art, culture and philosophy, particularly the part that professes “humanism”. The city came to be known as “Athens of Middle Ages” because of Grecian influence on it in its various pursuits which may have been triggered by migrations from Greece. While Machiavelli, a humanist, has been called the founder of modern political science, Petrarch, known as the “Father of Humanism”, wielded tremendous influence on the movement that stretched from the 14th Century to 17th Century saturating everything with it from literature, architecture, sculpture, art and so on. It produced polymath giants like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo who were proficient in multiple fields of human endeavour, from science, engineering to sculpture, art and architecture and even poetry. Each of them has been designated as “Renaissance Man”.
We again put up in a pension on the first floor of a building that appeared pretty old. We had only a day and a half to go around and look at the city. We not only did not have time and we also were short of funds. Nonetheless, we did as best as we could within the limitations and wandered around the city.
The first attempt had to be to see the famous David of Michelangelo even if it happened to be a replica. It was indeed a remarkable sculpture with a perfect human male body tensed up in the face of the prospect of a fight with the monster Goliath. We, for some reason, could not view the original that was kept at the Academia Gallery. Perhaps it was under repairs or restoration. The statue reminded me of the Grecian marble statues that I happened to see in India in Baroda museum. Michelangelo was a product of Renaissance and no wonder it was as realistic as human figures etched in marble of ancient Greece. Michelangelo is stated to have worked at the age of 24 for two years to perfect this giant of a masterpiece which is reputed to be the most perfect representation in marble of a male human form. Those who have read Irving Stone’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy” would know to what extent Michelangelo would inflict pain on himself to get to that perfection in each of his pieces of art.
The Duomo is what dominates the city of Florence. It is the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (Cathedral of St. Mary of the Flowers) is the main church of Florence and is also known as Duomo di Firenze. Its construction commenced in 1296 and it took around 200 years to build. The cathedral complex located in what is known as the Piazza del Duomo comprises the Cathedral, the Baptistery and Giotto’s Campanile (the bell tower). Giotto was the architect of Campanile who was another brilliant specimen to have appeared during the Renaissance in Florence.
The exterior of the Cathedral has polychrome marbles from several places in Italy, including well-known Carrara, in shades of green, white and pink giving it a distinctive look. Never before in my life had I seen such a multi-coloured Gothic cathedral. Most cathedrals are forbidding, generally in brooding dark grey or dirty brown. This one was bright and different. Its dimensions are immense – about 8000 square metres. Its height is enough to make it visible from most parts of the city – at least its octagonal dome. Austerely decorated, yet busts of all those connected with building of the edifice, including the distinguished architects, have been displayed prominently.
The octagonal dome alone took 20 years to build. In those early days it was highly problematic to put a cupola on a structure that touched 80 metres in height and 150 metres across. Curiously, it was a goldsmith, Brunellischi, who was approved to build the difficult cupola that was plagued by many architectural problems. It was completed by 1436 to give the Florentines a cathedral that was ultimately covered from the top. Soon after consecration of the finished cathedral Brunnelischi, the goldsmith-architect, died handing down to posterity a cupola that continues to dominate the city’s skyline. It was the largest dome in the world until new structural materials came on the scene. It, however, continues to be the largest brick dome ever constructed. Its insides are frescoed with the scenes of Last Judgment and one cannot help wondering how the artists painted every inch of it suspended at that height.
Wandering around in the Florentine streets was itself very interesting and wWalking aimlessly on the cobbled streets with their aged still-in-use buildings was, indeed, a pleasure. Virtually on every turn a new captivating vista would open up brimming over with tourists and surely many locals. What were more interesting were the piazzas that one got to quite by chance. Piazzas are nothing but public squares surrounded by buildings and more often beautified by an elegant sculptural complex and a decorated fountain. One such was the piazza where we came across the statue of Neptune.
As we entered another street the Campanile hove into view with dramatic suddenness and appeared standing tall and erect seemingly keeping a watch over the goings-on down below. The Campanile is always called Giotto’s who was its designer-architect but there were many who lent their expertise not only to this structure but even to the Cathedral. The Campanile is a freestanding bell tower more than eighty metres high adjacent to the Duomo built on a square plan with sides of around 15 metres embellished by decorated niches, alcoves and customized sculptures. The most distinctive feature of it is that the architect who designed the upper three levels are each slightly bigger than the ones immediately below so that in perspective all the levels, instead of appearing smaller, look equal in dimensions. The Campanile, once again, has a polychromic appearance with the marbles of three colours in geometric patterns.
We rushed through Palazzo Medici and Palazzo Pitti, both residences of the Medici – the latter one was even used by Napoleon for some time. They are so huge that it wasn’t possible to cover them thoroughly, thus missing out on the wealth that the palaces are repositories of. At the Pitti Palace we stumbled upon an Egyptian obelisk with hieroglyphics inscribed on it. As we later saw in Paris, these were the loot of the European powers after their various Egyptian campaigns.
We hurried on to the station as it was time to catch the train for Rome, the city that holds in thrall every visitor.